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Are You a Proactive Parent or a Reactive Parent?

I recently had the opportunity to sit in a doctor's office waiting room for almost an hour. During that time, I quietly observed several mothers come and go with their preschool age children.

Each mother I observed seemed warm and loving toward her children, and the children all appeared to be happy and healthy and exhibited age appropriate behavior.

I also noticed two distinctly different parenting models among those interactions.

  • Some of the mothers waited for their children to act, which caused the mother to react. Reactive parenting.

An example of this model I saw is when one mother announced it was time to leave. Both of the children began racing each other toward the door. She warned them, "You better not run out that door into the parking lot!" Her children responded by running straight out the door. She yelled, "You better not run into that parking lot!" They kept running. She yelled again, "If you run into that parking lot..." She never finished her sentence, but sprinted into the parking lot to scoop up the laughing children and carry them to the car.

I was nervous the whole time, looking right and left out the window for cars who might not see small children dart out in front of them.

  • Some of the mothers acted and expected a reaction from the children. Proactive parenting.

I saw this when, shortly after the above incident, a mother pulled into the parking lot and began unbuckling 2 small children. I could see by her pointing that she instructed them to stand and wait until she got everything she needed from the car.

I was again nervous that they might run into the parking lot away from their mother, like the last children.

Instead, though, they stood patiently while their mother got her belongings and shut the car doors. Then they all walked cheerily inside the waiting room and she told them to play with the toys while she checked in. Just like in the parking lot, they did as they were told.

When she was through checking in, she hugged them both and one of them handed her a book, which she read aloud to them.

I pondered these two different types of parenting models and realized that the first was reactive and the second was proactive.

Remember, mothers, in interacting with your children there will be actions and reactions.

Causes and Effects. Don't fall into the pattern of letting all of your interactions be reactive. This happens when the mother waits for her child to determine what will happen next, as in the first scenario above.

Instead, use your time at home with your children to teach them your expectations before you encounter those scenarios in public.

I'm imagining that the second mother had previously taught her children, "When I tell you to stand here, don't leave that spot until it is time to follow Mommy. It is dangerous if you don't obey me when I tell you to stand here." This is proactive parenting.

Don't wait until you are in a dangerous situation to teach your children to stand where you tell them to. Don't wait until you are in church to teach them how to sit quietly. That is reactive.

Be proactive and show them at home how to obey you in public.

In addition to the above lesson, an unpleasant consequence should be applied each time the child disobeys even in safe situations if you expect them to follow your instructions in dangerous situations.

The first set of children in my illustration did not obey, so the mother had to run after them and hope she made it to them before a car did. She yelled an empty threat, and the children acted to see how she would react.

The second set of children obeyed in the parking lot (dangerous) and in the waiting room (safe). It was apparent that they were accustomed to hearing instructions from their mother and obeying them. She was a proactive parent.

These things must be taught and practiced.

Children do not come into the world knowing whether they should mind you or not.

Be a proactive parent not a reactive parent.

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  1. You must have been at the doctor’s office with me the last few weeks. Shoulda said hi. A week ago, I was Proactive Mama. All my little ducklings behind me in a row. Yesterday, I looked an awful lot like Reactive Mama. My kids got away from me, somehow. It happens. 😉

  2. Being a proactive mama saved the life of my oldest son when he was three. We were walking into the parking lot and he was slightly ahead of the shopping cart when a car whipped around the corner (teen drivers!!) and headed right for us. I just said, “Stop.” He instantly obeyed even though he hadn’t noticed the car. For years, we’ve played Stop and Go at home so my kids know to instantly obey the word “Stop” and it can be literally life-saving to do so.

    Thanks for this reminder. I think it’s easy to get lazy, or in big families, to work diligently on the older ones, but then let up on the little ones. However, we aren’t doing them any favors, are we??!

  3. Well said!! This is something we try very hard to do in our home ( being proactive) yet we still fall, often.. such a good reminder for today! ( and every day!! ) Blessings to you!!

  4. To me being proactive is also acting like you have good expectations that your children will obey. For instance, we take our children to the restaurant once in a rare while (expensive with a bunch), and people are always so surprised at how well they behave. We act like we expect them to copy us, and most of the time, they do. I think too many empty threats and/or lecturing before going someplace gives them ideas of wrong things to do.

    When I taught 4th grade, I saw that the children usually lived up to or surpassed my expectations of them. They felt that I had confidence in them, and that made a huge difference in their behaviors with me versus other teachers. My own children are like that. Now, if they do not act correctly when we’re out and about, I give them one chance to correct their behavior or we leave the place. I’ve only had to leave the grocery store twice in 18 years (with 6 children)…they learn very quickly.

    Sometimes, with my children, I bite my lip, hold my breath, etc. and watch paitently to see how they are doing instead of nagging or telling them all the time what/how to do things. I love it, when most of the time, they come through and behave correctly in a certain situation. I do know that children copy everything they see and try it out…makes me nervous because I’m definitely not perfect! :)

    Love your writings, Connie! I feel like we could be close cousins, sometimes! :)

  5. Thank you, thank you thank you for the reminder! Sometimes it’s easy to get busy and become lazy in our parenting!

    You can just plan on reposting this once every couple of years on an off day or something.

  6. This was a great post and a very good reminder. Thank you. I must remember to be proactive!